reeling through life

When I write about books on my blog, I aim to write smart, insightful posts. I want to sound like someone with important things to say, to say them with wit and economy, to sound casual yet sophisticated. This desire often stops me from writing anything, defeating me before I’ve tried. (The better I know the book’s author, the more pervasive this pattern and my anxiety.) Operationally, it goes like this: Read a (great) book, smile and glow and lovingly put the book on a pile in my office that I will write about some day. Sometimes I do write about the book. Sometimes the book just sits there waiting until I clean my office, and because it seems too much time has passed and no one in the blogosphere really needs or wants my opinion, I put it back on the shelf, and recommend the book to anyone I think would like it.

This dance has become unwelcome and leaves me with stacks of books, shame, guilt. But my inner story (that I am a lazy Literary Citizen, etc.) is no longer serving me, so I’m letting it go. From now on, my intention is to just write something, anything, about the books I want to tell you about.


I want to tell you about Tara Ison’s book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love, And Die At The Movies.

I love this book.

I owned it for months before I read it. Though I was busy, I was also intimidated by the idea of not knowing all the films inside and out, and by how much I admire Tara and her work. Excuses, excuses! (Tara was among the fabulous core faculty at Antioch Los Angeles MFA program when I was there at school, and is an exquisite teacher and human. And since then, she’s become a friend.)

At night when I’m reading, it’s often in the last hour before sleep, and sometimes I’m so tired that I just fade out. I never faded out while reading this book. As I read it, I felt an urge not only to stay up too late, but also to eat the book—it was tasty and decadent and full of unexpected spice.

I know Tara, so I have the pleasure of hearing her voice as I read these essays. I’ve seen some of the films she mentions, not all, but for those I didn’t know, or didn’t quite recall, she gives context in graceful strokes. The experience of reading it was therefor not in the least disorienting. Nor did she overload on context. The balance was graceful and perfect.

Of the million gems between these covers, I marked a section on p. 107 (in “How To Be A Jew”): Tara’s writing about the film The Chosen (which I have not seen).:

“Next up for the boys, a movie house, for some Van Johnson musical confection; Danny is unimpressed, bored. But then the newsreel begins: The ‘Nazi Murder Mills,’ with documentary footage of American troops liberating the concentration camps. Here we go, I think, begin the parade of those brutal, brutal images I have seen so many times by now. Again, really? I do not want to watch them again, I do not want another fix—or want to trigger the need for another fix—but I find myself shaking, my heart quickening. And I realize what is moving me, here, is Danny’s reaction to them. It is his first time seeing these images, and his horror is newborn and unfiltered, uncynical, raw. There are tears in his eyes, his jaw is both tightened and slack, his face seems to lose its shape; he is disappearing into these images, the way I once did, and watching his pain both shames me and reawakens my own. This image of Danny, a fictional character in a fictional movie, does not detract from what’s real, or from what’s true; it brings me back to what is real and true, an essential part of who I am, as a human being and a Jew, and for that I am also grateful.

I will never forget.”

(This, this, is how fiction matters.)

So for anyone interested in how the cinematic image can inform, bend, and shape our lives, I recommend this book. But the book is not just about film. The generosity, the humanity on the page affirms life, makes me feel more human. Tara is willing to air her frailty. While she never seems to obscure a corner of her messy inside story, none of it feels gratuitous. Her acts of humanity in this work are evident and unvarnished. It’s deeply satisfying as a memoir and a study of (capital S) Story.

If you are interested in writing sentences, read this book, because Tara’s sentences will help you learn about writing tight, gorgeous sentences.

And on a larger level: how she weaves film with her life story is a model in hybrid models…the form she’s made feels so inventive. I haven’t read anything quite like this. To me, it seems that Tara has created in these pages a new form.


So there it is. I could have agonized and shaped this post more, but instead I’m going to go smile at Reeling Through Life, and then hold it in my hands for a few moments before I shelve it where I can find it when it’s time to reread. (And try not to eat it.)

(And I’m grateful, because I still have Tara Ison’s story collection, BALL, to look forward to!)

Nurturing the literary ecosystem

Give a hoot, read a book!
Give a hoot, read a book!

Last Saturday, at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop seminar, Paths to Publication, my understanding about the revolution in publishing deepened. The thread through the day showed how the conversation has shifted: even those in traditional publishing now acknowledge (rather gracefully) that self-publishing is no longer simply what we used to know as vanity publishing and that there are about a thousand smart and thoughtful ways to do whatever a writer wants to do. This kind of event—involving agents, editors, and people who help others self-publish—would not have been as collegial and open even a couple years ago. It might have been because the people in the room were generous and respectful of each other, but I also think it has to do with the changing marketplace, and with the idea of literary citizenship.

Presenter Cathy Day teaches a course in literary citizenship at Ball State University. Day encountered the term on Dinty W. Moore’s post at Brevity. Though I’ve been thinking about literary citizenship for a while, and doing my part when I make time for it, the conversation on Saturday opened up how I had been thinking about the quest for a publisher. And beyond that, opened up how I had been thinking about what it is to be part of a literary community, to walk in the landscape of creative writing.

My epiphany, coming after the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle (my first ever AWP conference) is interesting timing. I’ve been a lurker in the world of words. Depending on the day and my mood, I blame this tendency to lurk on being an introvert, or not knowing everyone, or not being connected, or being a slow reader, or not having read everything that I know somehow I should have read. (For instance, I feel a sense of shame when I look at the end of Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer  where she provides a four page list entitled, “Books To Be Read Immediately.”) At age 47, there are many areas in my life where I have grown comfortable taking charge, and where I feel a sense of balance. Approaching the public with my work is not one of them. But I woke on Saturday morning (before the AWW seminar) with a new clarity: 1) I want my work to be read, and 2) I don’t want to be at the mercy of others to make that happen. I’m not sure what these two facts will manifest. (Stay tuned.)

And as the day went on, I realized that getting published (which sometimes seems like the only thing, as a thirsty plant needs water) is a relatively small part of the work of a literary life. Yes, it’s nice to have recognition, and not to feel invisible. But there’s more to it than that. “Ask not what you can to do get published.  Ask what you can do for books,” read Cathy Day’s first slide in her presentation on literary citizenship. A great place to start reframing things…

Literary citizenship seems a bit like taking care of the planet. But it goes beyond a literary version of Woodsy Owl’s “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” It’s not just avoiding throwing a beer can out of your car window, and it goes beyond picking up the cigarette butts you see on the sidewalk. It’s composting, and taking the humus to the community garden. Earnest literary citizenship is a deeper way to care for the environment of books and words, and it is not self-serving, unless we think of maintaining the environment of books as a good thing in itself, and good for us humans (which it is). It’s giving thought (beyond our own writing) to what we give to the world, what we leave behind for future generations of readers…and it’s really about sustaining and contributing to a community.

(“We make the world. We make it!” I wrote a long time ago in a post here. It’s just now sinking in that this applies not just to the world but also to the world of books and words. We have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of work to do. But what else would I rather be doing?)

I’m grateful for all the presenters at Saturday’s AWW publishing seminar for a wonderful day:  Jeff Herman, Deborah Herman, Kirby Gann, David Braughler, Steve Saus, and Cathy Day. As often happens at AWW events, early in the day, a sort of narrative thread emerged: Do your work, connect with others, practice the good form of nurturing books and supporting the community of writers, read the small print, you can do anything. Make something happen.

And finally after a long, oppressive winter, it’s spring.